Placing knowledge in the body: Western Australian choreographers dancing ‘With a Bullet’

In This Article

​In 2014 I investigated the studio processes of seven Western Australian choreographers to develop case studies that unpack the memories, emotions, and sensations illuminating creative decision making in experts. This project took place within the context of a curated dance work, With a Bullet: The Album Project (Cursio 2006–7, ‘With a Bullet: The Album Project’; 2013–4, ‘With a Bullet: W.A. Edition’; subsequently in this paper, WAB), that poses a nostalgic and experimental challenge to the choreographers, inviting them to recall the first song to which they ever ‘made up a dance’, and to use this piece of music as a springboard for, and soundtrack to, a new piece of choreography. Nat Cursio, the original curator and conceiver of the project, is an Australian contemporary dance choreographer and curator who has enjoyed critical and commercial success with several major curated works based in contemporary dance. WAB was first produced in Melbourne in 2006, with a second season in 2007. This research draws on the W.A. Edition of the curated work, first produced in 2012, followed by a second stage development in 2013–4 that was funded by the Australian Council for the Arts.

As the catalyst for a research enquiry, the question of when and how choreographers begin ‘making up dances’ resonates with dance professionals in complex ways. Prior to deciding to make it a profession, many dance artists will have spent hours making up ‘steps’ to their favourite songs to be performed for friends and family, such that the processes of creating new works are deeply imbued with histories and memories held within the choreographers’ bodies. This phenomenon, where dancers’ bodies are imbued with histories and memories, is fundamental to the research approach in this inquiry. The curatorial framework of WAB is also significant in that it utilises the evocative power of music to trigger the processes of memory, mediated through the artistic decision-making of mature experience. The fixed variable of choreographing to a set piece of music that forms part of each artist’s history encourages consideration of their artistic journey and provides an opportunity to examine the links between memory, music and movement. (Findings that explicitly connect WAB and the cognitive processes of human memory appear in a chapter published as part of Bloomsbury’s ‘Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues’ series; McKenzie 2017).

This paper will examine the reflective and reflexive ways in which choreographers speak of their practices, looking for evidence of embodied knowledge, which can be understood as knowing that sits alongside explicitly declarative forms of knowledge without being articulated. A key insight from this study is that such knowledge is made manifest in the process of transmission, such that tacit understandings that are learned as a dancer are then explored in the choreographers’ own practices with their dancers, in the complex physical, emotional and social space of the studio. Thus, the research illuminates new perspectives on the transfer of choreographic aesthetics, as well as alternative ways of knowing and articulating creative processes. Additionally, with its explicit focus on Western Australian choreographers Michael Whaites, Jo Pollitt, Shona Erskine, and Claudia Alessi, this paper goes some way towards redressing what Maggi Phillips identified as ‘east coast privilege’ in her review of Bodies of thought: Twelve Australian choreographers (Phillips 2014, p. 47).


Here I will outline the research methods employed and my reasons for selecting them, including the use of sources, undertaking semi-structured interviews, and the application of a narrative approach to interpretation. The place of embodied knowledge in WAB’s curatorial and choreographic processes was investigated through thematic analysis in several iterative stages, leading to the development of eight case studies. Nine choreographers were involved in the W.A. Edition of WAB and I interviewed seven of them, as well as Cursio.

The research is supplemented by interviews undertaken with the Melbourne Edition artists in 2006. Recognising the potential of WAB for facilitating research into the operations of embodied knowledge in creative processes and the transfer of choreographic aesthetics, Cursio arranged preliminary interviews with the choreographers involved in the Melbourne Edition of the project and published the transcripts on her website (Cursio 2006–7). This material comprises transcripts of four individual choreographers’ statements, without the interviewer’s contribution; a transcript of a group interview with other choreographers in the cohort that includes the interviewer’s contributions; and a program essay written by the interviewer, Elizabeth Boyce, who focused on each choreographer’s trajectory from the original choreographic experience to the current choreographic experience, and the role of music in that reflective journey (Boyce 2006–7). These textual sources of WAB’s Melbourne Edition offer experiential information in reference to the artists’ shared experiences and attitudes, and provided me with an opportunity to hear the vocabulary used by the respondents. Thus, they were important for developing the lines of inquiry for my study, suggesting thematic notions around which to organise my interview questions with the W.A. cohort.

In 2014 I undertook one-on-one, in-depth interviews with the choreographers of WAB’s W.A. Edition, within a few weeks of the project’s completion. In most cases interviews occurred face to face, though Skype or the telephone were used in some instances for follow up. My interviews were semi-structured, guided by the key words memory, music, movement, mentors, knowing; and aimed to reach more complex notions suggested by the Melbourne Edition interviews: studio methods and modes of enquiry, the transfer of choreographic aesthetics, evolution of form in contemporary dance, and the use of audio and rhythm in choreographic practice. Only the first question was scripted, and each interview began in the same way: I asked the choreographer to tell me the story of their first choreographic experience as identified by the premise of WAB.

This methodology positions interviewing as a sound way of generating qualitative empirical data. It assumes interviews can illuminate phenomena that cannot be directly observed (Peräkylä and Ruusuvuori 2011, p. 529) and can gather a rich account of participants’ experiences, knowledge, ideas and impressions (Alvesson 2011, p. 3). The interviews offered participants a reflective opportunity through which to explore their experience of making a new work with an old and familiar piece of music. A narrative approach is supported by theories that suggest storytelling contributes to ‘meaning making through the shaping or ordering of experience’ (Chase 2011, p. 421). This process is less concerned with discovering the accuracy of the narrated events, and more interested in understanding the meanings people attach to those events (Chase 2011, p. 424).

I employed an interpretivist approach, which acknowledges that interview participants collaborate in the construction of knowledge by working to discern and communicate the recognisable and orderly features of experience (Holstein and Gubrium 2004, p. 145). This study focused on the phenomenology of the choreographic experience, a perspective that assumes the relationship between perception and its objects is an active construction including elements of meaning and the personal interpretation of the lived experience (Patton 2002, p. 104).

Given the small numbers of choreographers involved in WAB, and the complexity of the ideas being discussed, interviews are a valid method for seeking data that may contribute to illuminating embodied knowledge in choreographic processes. However, after completing eight interviews in 2014, taken together with the views of nine respondents in the Melbourne Edition interviews, what emerged was a set of case studies, rather than a set of principles about embodied knowledge. Several of the W.A. Edition interviews yielded interesting narratives about the choreographers’ studio methods that were published as artist’s profiles, offering an early dissemination of the sustained research endeavour. Two of these profiles feature Whaites and Alessi, adding to the case studies presented here (McKenzie 2014a, 2014b).

Whilst each choreographer’s WAB story was unique, there were significant areas of overlap in forms of engagement in studio practice, and a second round of data analysis offered a new and useful perspective. I was guided by Csordas’ research (1999) that illuminates somatic modes of attention and embodied imagery, that is, culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in one’s environment. I returned to all of the transcripts and sought linguistic markers that I could link to embodied knowledge; words associated with intuition, imagination, perception and sensation, such as knew, felt, found, understood, saw, want; as well as metaphors and figures of speech marked by the use of as if, like.

This analytical process revealed much that direct questions about the choreographers’ memory, music and movement did not, and led to different questions being asked in follow-up interviews, each tailored to the respondent. Of the seven W.A. Edition choreographers I interviewed, six participated in some follow up conversation, and in some cases I was able to undertake observation of studio processes. I also twice interviewed Nat Cursio, about her choreographic experience in the Melbourne Edition of WAB, and her curatorial experience of the project from 2006–2013. The W.A. Edition was co-curated by Shona Erskine, and I spoke with her about her roles as choreographer and co-curator. Additionally, her experiences as a dancer in WAB are recorded in the Melbourne Edition interviews.

Gathering multiple types of data and using various methods offers a ‘crystallization’ of findings, supporting the development of a depth of understanding (Richardson 2000, p. 934). The data sets produced detailed case studies that were able to accommodate layers of meaning, which may be difficult to utilise in more linear research approaches. A case study is especially useful for the choreographers involved in WAB, endorsing the simultaneous investigation of individual and curatorial elements, as it investigates a phenomenon within its authentic context, where the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident (Yin 2014, p. 16).

Finally, the methodological choices in this research are consistent with what Smith and Dean describe as the ‘iterative cyclic web’ (2009, p. 19), which illustrates how academic and practice-led research can fruitfully interact. McKechnie and Stevens apply this practice–research–practice cycle to dance research, where practice-led research in dance leads to new works; basic and applied research about dance responds to work created in the previous stage; followed by research-led practice for dance, in which artists use and test the findings in the studio (2009, p. 96). This project is applied research about the dance work WAB that facilitates the operation of the iterative cyclic web. Several of the WAB W.A. Edition choreographers have sought further engagement with me as a result of this research, in order to use its insights in the studio.

In this paper I will offer evidence for the operations of embodied knowledge, with a focus on four choreographers in the study—Michael Whaites, Jo Pollitt, Shona Erskine, and Claudia Alessi – whose comments offer rich accounts of their experiences.    

Michael Whaites: connecting to the feeling

McKechnie and Stevens claim that ‘complex dance vocabularies challenge the view of human memory as a storehouse of linguistic propositions’ (2012, p. 118). Where does memory reside when it is not a ready story, or knowledge that can be accessed as an explicit memory? Is it somehow held within the body, or in an emotional state? In my interviews, though I sought responses that could articulate memories residing in physical sensation, choreographers found it difficult to register such an explicit proposition, and instead I read through their comments about how creative processes feel for evidence of the knowledge informing these perceptions and sensations. Michael Whaites is exemplary here; he has worked as a dancer with a number of international companies including Twyla Tharp and Dancers, and Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal. As a choreographer, he has worked with notable Australian companies such as Australian Dance Theatre and Leigh Warren and Dancers. As with all of the interview subjects, I asked Michael to tell me a story about his first choreographic experience that fixed the music (from the first Hooked on Classics album) for his WAB piece. He grew up in a remote South Australian town and on Friday nights his parents would go to the pub and he would go to a gym class:

I would be picked up to go to gym and that was about a thirty-mile car ride into the country … I had half-an-hour at home waiting for my ride to gym. So I would put on music and dance around the living room, warm up, improvise … This piece of music wasn’t really something that I choreographed to, it was just this thing that was stuck in my head. (Whaites 2014)

Michael does not say exactly how the ‘thing that was stuck in [his] head’ was accessed to generate the new work, but identified ‘that feeling when you are inspired by music to dance somehow’ (Whaites 2014):

Dancing around the living room … Just being with my body in the music … fitting those two things together. … I guess it’s as simple as when a rhythmic idea in the body fits together with a rhythmic idea in the structure of a pre-recorded piece of music. So especially in an improvised setting, it’s a synchronicity, or a sense of arriving at something spontaneous that connects. (Whaites 2014)

In this narrative of the creative process, Michael’s vocabulary is telling; he uses words and phrases that reoccur across the cohort: a sense of something ‘fitting’, that ‘connects’, a ‘synchronicity’. Michael’s personal and intuitive response to music has been challenged by his professional practice, in which music typically follows choreography and must ‘make sense’ and ‘connect’ to the internal rhythm (Whaites 2014). WAB’s premise offered a combination of approaches, such that the urge to dance inherent in music is linked with knowing how to work with the formal requirements of rhythmical structure.

As a choreographer Michael is aesthetically motivated by the internal experience, ‘how the body is affected through the experience’ of dancing (Whaites 2014). Michael talks about working with Pina Bausch and how this influenced him as a choreographer: ‘Before I was in the Pina Bausch Company, I remember watching works of that company performed on stage and feeling an immediate connection with the dancers … and understanding what was going on, on an almost unconscious level’ (Whaites 2014). Michael uses the word “connection” here, echoing the uses of ‘connect’ and ‘connects’ that describe the sensation of music and movement going together, in his personal dance and in professional practice. This suggests that the process of connecting music with movement in his own dancing is analogous to that of translating movement to another body in choreography. I asked about this in our follow-up interview; when identifying the connection of music with movement for himself, ‘it’s about a feeling’, and when seeking that in others, ‘it’s about what I see. … There is this viscerality that I connect to when I watch what they’ve done’ (Whaites 2015). Thus, additional senses are engaged, where choreography requires a combination of feeling, seeing and describing, but the internal experience is much the same.

The literature regarding the phenomenology of body memory distinguishes between explicit or declarative memory, and implicit memory, which can be difficult to verbalise. For example, Thomas Fuchs draws a distinction between an explicit ‘knowing that’, and implicit memory grounded in experience, ‘a tacit know-how’ (Fuchs 2012, p. 11). Michael’s experience as a choreographer demonstrates that he knows how to choreograph, and my findings suggest that this knowledge develops from his own dancing experiences. Further, such implicit knowledge is linked to the spaces and situations where it is demonstrated: ‘Experience is based on the lived body’s interaction with the world; it is a practical, not a theoretical knowledge. Experienced persons recognize immediately what is essential or characteristic of a complex situation’ (Fuchs 2012, p. 14). It is clear that the particular knowledge of choreographic professionals like Michael Whaites is seen in the way they solve complex artistic problems in the studio.

Jo Pollitt: feeling and knowing side-by-side

Nat Cursio Co., With a Bullet: the Album Project – Perth Edition. Choreographer Jo Pollitt, studio photograph, 2013. Dancer: Shona Erskine. Photograph by Nat Cursio.

Jo Pollitt is a choreographer and writer whose practice and research is grounded in improvisation. For Jo, the choreographic process begins in standing side-by-side with the dancer, with an ‘idea of transferring energetic state and a physical place’, a process she describes as ‘dynamic’ rather than ‘esoteric’ (Pollitt 2014). In her WAB piece Jo choreographed on a dancer with whom she had not previously worked and initially found the lack of progress frustrating. The solution was found in the doing: ‘I had to experiment with this person, this new dancer, and what I saw was that she was most at home in her own improvising when it was related directly to a scene in her own life’ (Pollitt 2014). Jo is seeking an ‘exchange of feeling’, a process she describes as being 'about a knowing, just following this sense of something’ (Pollitt 2014). Experimenting in the studio combines elements of verbal communication and nonverbal communication, using a side-by-side technique in which ‘the artist tries to manifest what she’s feeling or sensing or wanting to sense or feel’ (Pollitt 2014). In conversation with Jo I sought to explore the moment of transfer of her choreographic aesthetic to the dancer that was required in order to ‘make this micro-world in three-and-a-half minutes’, the length of her WAB song ‘Chain Reaction’ (Pollitt 2014):

I just kept working, using scores and stories and talking until I saw her do this first gesture and I went, that’s it, what are you doing? And she goes, I just transferred that idea that you were talking about, about multiple things happening at once in the body. (Pollitt 2014)

This moment is one of recognition; it is a physical and sensory experience occurring within and between dancers. Jo knows what she wants to see because she knows how she feels, and when she sees it in someone else she recognises it through association with her own body.

In Jo’s descriptions of her choreographic experiences in WAB, there is evidence of cooperation between the processes of doing and watching, feeling and seeing, as we might expect to see in the multi-modal art form of dance, in which choreography operates in a social context. These complex processes can be understood as the operations of practical knowledge, a ‘knowing how’ explored in Anna Pakes’ chapter ‘Knowing through dance-making: Choreography, practical knowledge and practice-as-research’, which brings together strands of research that identify varieties of practical knowledge. Pakes elaborates Carr’s (1999) interpretation of phronesis, Aristotle’s concept of practical understanding, in the context of choreography. Phronesis is concerned with moral conduct and intersubjective encounters, which lends itself to understanding choreographic activity that involves others:

It is a kind of attunement to the particularities of situations and experiences, requiring subjective involvement rather than objective detachment; and it has an irreducible personal dimension in its dependence upon, and the fact that it folds back into, subjective and intersubjective experience. (Pakes 2012, p. 68)

Moreover, the cooperation between the processes of doing, watching, feeling, and seeing occurs within and between dancers, as was seen with Michael Whaites. It is important to draw attention to the aspects of Jo’s know-how that are embodied, as these can be overlooked in studies of creative processes that rely on linguistic propositions. All the experiences described to me by Jo are grounded in the physical, from the imaginary ‘worlds’ that is a key metaphor used to describe her WAB experience, to the side-by-side process of choreographic creation that she ‘navigate[s] through physically’ (Pollitt 2014). Places of the imagination, of memory, and the physical environment of the studio are negotiated via a combination of emotions and sensations that Jo calls ‘physical imagination’ (Pollitt 2015).

Furthermore, the mode of knowledge transfer in which interpersonal relationships inform the choreographic process was modelled to Jo by choreographers with whom she has worked: ‘I trust that it’s available in my physical body, that the experience that has been collected is always there and can’t be undone’ (Pollitt 2014). Trust is a key term for Jo, also used by other choreographers. Working with dancers requires ‘a shared belief in accepting what you don’t know … I’m happy to work with somebody who knows nothing about my work, except trusts that we’re in something together from the beginning’ (Pollitt 2014). Of interest here is how Jo links this to physical states: ‘trust in terms of physicality and this energetic state’; and of her choreographic influences, ‘trust that it’s available in my physical body’ (Pollitt 2014).

‘Association’ is a word Jo often uses in her descriptions of her process, in the sense of a connection or cooperative link (Pollitt 2014, 2015). When it comes to employing her mentors’ influences within her own choreographic work, Jo states that ‘what makes it mine is this cerebral space, as well as this association-from-association poetic jumping or travelling through multiple spaces and situations and relationships in many worlds all happening at once that I navigate through physically’ (Pollitt 2014). In our follow-up interview Jo explained that, from a young age:

I understood that information can be exchanged without the usual kind of looking into each other’s eyes or waiting for an appropriate gesture or response to come back at you, to just trust more on the idea that your information can keep progressing or your decision making or your pathway can keep going. (Pollitt 2015)

Jo describes this process as a kind of ‘listening’ that is ‘rhythmic’; it ‘generates information’ in a ‘kind of feedback loop’ (Pollitt 2015). Considering this in phenomenological terms, it would appear to be an example of intercorporeality, the sense of others that our bodies have through association or analogy with our own (Merleau-Ponty 1987). The operations of this phenomenon in the cultural context of choreography will be discussed in relation to the work of Csordas below.

Shona Erskine: feeling for the right decision

Nat Cursio Co., With a Bullet: the Album Project – Perth Edition. Choreographer Shona Erskine, studio photograph, 2013. Dancers (left to right): Shona Erskine, Claudia Alessi, Aimee Smith and Joel Small. Photograph by Trent Suidgeest.

For the choreographers interviewed in this study, creative problems are solved in the studio. Moreover, the way in which ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ are played out may not be conscious or explicit. Shona Erskine worked alongside Nat Cursio as a co-curator of the Perth Edition of With a Bullet, as well as being one of the featured choreographers. She compares her relatively recent experiences as a choreographer to her more extensive experiences of being a dancer, and a clinical psychologist, and finds that the processes are analogous:

What you do, therapeutically or in a studio, is attend to the moment, go back to the moment and repeat the moment … and the moment changes. I know as a dancer [how] to feel that on the inside, but it’s exactly the same when you’re outside as a choreographer: if it’s not right, if it makes your teeth kind of grate … you stay with it. And by staying with it and trying a different solution … it will solve itself. You’ll have that moment where you go ‘Ahh’. (Shona Erskine 2014).

In both cases a problem is felt internally, making ‘your teeth kind of grate’, and the solution is similarly an internal feeling, an ‘Ahh’.

Shona uses the language of information discovery to describe her WAB process: ‘If you’re ever lazy about creative practice and you stop drilling down, you’ll never have that aha moment where you go that is the right decision’ (Erskine 2014). But as a creative professional, the feeling of the right decision must be translated into language in the studio in order to choreograph with others: ‘you have to be able to describe what you see, not what you want to see, or what you think is there. So there’s this other skill of being able to sit on the outside and see someone with fresh eyes. Just describe what’s happening’ (Erskine 2014).

Despite her articulation, however, something remains elusive: where is the feeling of the right decision? How is it perceived? These are questions Shona has long grappled with. When she was interviewed as a dancer as part of the Melbourne Edition WAB, she recognised a natural affinity between music and movement, doing and listening, in others and in herself: ‘There are still those amazing emotional and physiological connections to moving to a beat and dancing. Whether I’m more technically proficient than when I was eight doesn’t actually matter. The feeling is the same’ (Cursio 2006–7). As a young person the connection between music and movement as a part of a creative process was arbitrary rather than considered, but the ‘emotional and physiological connections’ are ‘constant’.

Furthermore, Shona has explored the question of the 'right decision’ with her long-time collaborator Sue Healy. As a dancer Shona knows viscerally when Sue’s choreographic decision is the right one, and when it is not: ‘you can feel it in your body, you can feel it’s the right decision, you go, yeah, and then the bits where you go, oh…, she’ll correct them and she’ll make a different decision’ (Erskine 2014). But when the question is explicitly asked, there is no clear answer: ‘Sue, when you look at something how do you know what decision to make? She couldn’t give me an answer’ (Erskine 2014). Shona and the other choreographers in this study use the word ‘intuitive’ cautiously, and when it arises in interviews we sought to explore the processes that might be operating behind this deceptively familiar word.

Claudia Alessi: knowing how to feel the answer

Nat Cursio Co., With a Bullet: the Album Project – Perth Edition. Choreographer Claudia Alessi, studio photograph, 2013. Dancers (left to right): Aimee Smith and Shona Erskine. Photograph by Nat Cursio.

Some choreographers I spoke with made discoveries about their own memories and experiences through the studio process of creating a work for WAB. Claudia Alessi is well known in Australia for her work in contemporary performance and dance education, having choreographed for leading Australian theatre companies such as Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company. Claudia’s first choreographic experience was as a five year old directing herself and a neighbour in a lounge room version of ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’, and she remembers the ‘flood of excitement, emotion, bossiness’ that came with it (Alessi 2014). The process unfolded during the period of creation to reveal connections to emotions and to physical sensations that were previously not explicit:

Going back stirred this emotional roller-coaster of the memory of being that age and being told certain things, that I couldn’t be left-handed, I wasn’t allowed to play tennis with my left hand, I had to switch. It did these things to my brain and my emotions that stirred up a whole lot of ideas about then. For example, why the military walk came into place: because the nuns would tell us to march to our classroom. And then that just happened to fit into the idea of Napoleon soldiers. So there was this sense of navigating it via feeling and via emotion as well and tapping into that five, six year old. (Alessi 2014)

In the reflective and reflexive process supported by the framework of WAB, Claudia recalled that the Dominican nuns at her Roman Catholic school instructed the children to march to classes, and this memory was reflected in the costume choice that placed Claudia’s dancers in seventies-era platform boots that captured both the song’s disco era and the militaristic subtext. These boots, with all of their associations, were used early in the studio process, despite Claudia’s choreographic aesthetic generally favouring bare feet and dynamic movements into and out of the floor: ‘the minute I put the dancers in the boots, how their posture shifted in order to then articulate the form of the foot and leg phrase was going back almost to looking at how soldiers move … and that was interesting’ (Alessi 2014).

For this work, Claudia is interested in that creatively provocative tension between excitement and dynamically moving feet, and having to submit to marching feet. In the literature of creative psychology, the juxtaposition of contradictory ideas is often associated with creative thinking (see for example Gardner 1996; Wakefield 1994). The notion of ‘surrender' became the major theme of the work, through a chain of associations that links memories with her situation as an artist at the time of making the work, and by employing artistic decision-making arising from studio experience. Like Jo who spoke of an ‘exchange of feeling’, Claudia describes her creative process as one of ‘navigating it via feeling’. Within this, Claudia does not distinguish between explicitly knowing and other sensations that form her sense of being-in-the-world; all operate as a whole:

I went into the process thinking, trying to embody that thought process of a five, six year old and the excitement of how you put a step into place. Like, why do you come up with the step? Do you come up with the step because you like it and it feels good? And yes, that’s generally the answer. Or is it something that you’ve been influenced by and you’ve seen? And yes, that’s also the answer. (Alessi 2014)

Here, feeling and seeing are equally part of ‘the answer’ to the creative problem; additionally, positive emotional associations on a personal level work alongside previous choreographic influences in making the work. This sense of problem solving in practice reflects a kind of knowledge that depends less on explicitly remembered facts, and more on a sense of knowing how. Again, Anna Pakes is useful in illuminating these simultaneous and complex operations:

… the experienced artist’s knowledge how would be embodied in her conduct of the creative process: it informs the way the choreographer relates to her dancers, generates movement material, manipulates and edits that material and orchestrates the variety of choreographic elements within the emerging work. (Pakes 2012, p. 54)

The complex processes explored in the case studies that form the basis of this paper are usefully illuminated by psychological anthropologist Thomas Csordas’ cultural phenomenology that is informed by the notions of somatic modes of attention and embodied imagery (1993; 1999). Somatic modes of attention are culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others. The modes of attention Csordas’ research emphasise include perceptions, sensations, and imagination; imagination includes mental and physical imagery, such as pictures we can call to mind, but also sounds and other sensations. For example, Claudia’s use of the song ‘Waterloo’ was supported by her embodied knowledge of the music; she reports that it sat inside her as a ‘hum, hum, hum, in the background’ that she ‘knew the counts to without even thinking’ (Alessi 2014). Csordas suggests that, rather than reducing all experience to representation in language, the phenomenological tradition ‘offers us being-in-the-world as a dialogical partner for representation’ (1999, p. 147). The world of the studio is a locus of the creative process, with emotional, physical and intersubjective dimensions. It offers a place from which to explore the knowledge of the choreographic professional that can complement explicit propositions.

Intuition is another mode of attention that might be more usefully described as embodied knowledge, a way of knowing that sits alongside explicit and declarative information held in language. Resorting to this instinctive description to explain how and why things happen is a familiar problem explored by Susan Melrose in her chapter ‘Expert-intuitive processing and the logics of production: Struggles in (the wording of) creative decision-making in “dance”' (2009). Melrose draws on philosophical literature to suggest that expert-intuitive processing emerges from expert memory, which makes available a number of naturalised mechanisms that are used very rapidly and then wrongly described as intuitive. It may be that in using this word, the choreographers do not identify their skills as a particular form of knowledge. In Pakes’ description of choreographers’ verbal statements, such accounts often ‘show the sense of the artist’s action, that is, they expose the logic embedded in what was done, which the choreographer may or may not have been reflectively aware of during the process itself’ (Pakes 2012, p. 59). The research presented here, and the dance works that inspire it, help to draw some of these tacit understandings out.

Michael Whaites, Jo Pollitt, Shona Erskine, and Claudia Alessi all have unique ways of speaking of their practices and of expressing their knowledge. There are commonalities that I have sought to identify, such as finding solutions to creative challenges through doing, and knowing what to do because they have felt it before in their work as dancers. Looking at my data and the key terms under which they were examined, the experience of working with a choreographer is, for a dancer, an important expression of embodied knowledge, and can be seen to influence studio methods. For some, memory and knowing are inside them as a result of practice and modelling from mentors with whom they have worked as dancers before working as choreographers. Choreographic influences may thus be an expression of, or the vehicle for, knowledge, because they imprint how a felt body memory is demonstrated in a studio process or artistic outcome. In this way, knowledge may be perceived as a bodily sensation experienced during the transfer of choreographic aesthetics.

This paper has discussed ‘knowing how’, and other manifestations of ‘feeling’ that a decision is ‘right’, in order to illuminate creative decision making in choreography, which is a variety of embodied knowledge. The choreographers’ memories, emotions, and sensations are relevant here, as are their strategies for problem solving in the complex physical, emotional and social space of the studio. Memories and knowledge need not be explicitly declarative to play an important role, but rather tacit understandings performed during the process of transmission from choreographers to dancer offer alternative ways of knowing and articulating creative processes. Cursio’s WAB offered a unique opportunity for choreographers to reflect on their own development as artists, and the research presented here makes a contribution to the ongoing task of placing embodied knowledge on a par with that expressed through linguistic propositions.


  • Alvesson, M 2011, Interpreting interviews, UK: SAGE, London.
  • Boyce, E 2006–7, ‘Lounge room dancing.’ Accessed April 5, 2017,
  • Carr, D 1999. ‘Further reflections on practical knowledge and dance a decade on’ in Dance, Education and Philosophy, McFee G (ed), Meyer & Meyer Sport, Oxford.
  • Chase, S 2011, ‘Narrative Inquiry’ in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin N K and Lincoln Y S (eds), 4th edn, SAGE, Los Angeles, pp. 421–434.
  • Csordas, T J 1993, ‘Somatic Modes of Attention’, Cultural Anthropology, 8 (2), pp. 135–156.
  • Csordas, T J 1999, ‘Embodiment and cultural phenomenology’ in Perspectives on Embodiment: The intersections of Nature and Culture, Weiss G and Haber H F (eds), Routledge, New York, pp. 143-162.
  • Csordas, T J 2008, ‘Intersubjectivity and intercorporeality’, Subjectivity, 22, pp. 110–121, doi:10.1057/sub.2008.5.
  • Cursio, N 2006–7, With a Bullet: The Album Project, Accessed April 5, 2017,
  • Cursio, N 2013–4. ‘With a Bullet: W.A. Edition’, Accessed April 5, 2017,
  • Erskine, S 2014, personal interview by Vahri McKenzie, January 25, 2014, Digital voice recording, Perth, Australia.
  • Gardner, H 1996, ‘The Creators’ Patterns’, in Dimensions of Creativity, Boden, M A (ed), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 143-158.
  • Holstein, J A and Gubrium, J F 2004, ‘The Active Interview’, in Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice, Silverman D (ed), 2nd edn, SAGE, London, pp. 140–161.
  • Fuchs, T 2012, ‘The Phenomenology of Body Memory’, in Body Memory, Metaphor and Movement, edited by Koch, S C, Fuchs T, Summa M and Muller C (eds), John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 9–22.
  • McKechnie S and Stevens C, 2009, ‘Knowledge Unspoken: Contemporary Dance and the Cycle of Practice-Led Research, Basic and Applied Research, and Research-Led Practice’ in Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts, Smith H and Dean R T (eds), Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp 84–103.
  • McKechnie, S and Stevens, C 2012 ‘Visible Thought: Choreographic Cognition in Creating, Performing and Watching Contemporary Dance’ in Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, Butterworth J and Wildschut L (eds), Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, pp. 105–31.
  • McKenzie, V 2014a, ‘Freedom in Surrender’, Dancewest, September 2014, pp. 22–3.
  • McKenzie, V 2014b, ‘A Visceral Kind of Understanding’, Dancewest, December 2014, pp. 18–19.
  • McKenzie, V 2017, ‘Dancing With a Bullet: Moving into Memory with Music’, in Performing the Remembered Present: The Cognition of Memory in Dance, Theatre, and Music, Hansen P and Blasing B (eds), Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, London, pp. 197–223.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M 1987, ‘The Philosopher and His Shadow’ in Signs, McCleary R C (trans), Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, pp. 159–181.
  • Melrose, S 2009, ‘Expert-intuitive Processing and the Logics of Production: Struggles in (the Wording of) Creative Decision-Making in ‘Dance’ in Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, Butterworth J and Wildschut L (eds), Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, pp. 23–37.
  • Pakes, A 2012, ‘Knowing Through Dance-Making: Choreography, Practical Knowledge and Practice-as-Research’ in Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, Butterworth J and Wildschut L (eds), Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, pp. 51–76.
  • Patton, M Q 2002, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd edn, Thousand Oaks, SAGE, CA.
  • Peräkylä, A and Ruusuvuori, J 2011, ‘Analysing Talk and Text’ in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin N K and Lincoln Y S (eds), 4th edn, SAGE, Los Angeles, pp. 529–43.
  • Phillips, M 2014, ‘Review of the Book Bodies of Thought: Twelve Australian Choreographers’, Brolga: An Australian Journal about Dance 39, pp. 47–8.
  • Pollitt, J 2014, Personal interview by Vahri McKenzie, January 25 2014, digital voice recording, Perth, Australia.
  • Pollitt, J 2015, Personal interview by Vahri McKenzie, November 18 2015, digital voice recording, Perth, Australia.
  • Richardson, L 2000, ‘Writing: A Method of Inquiry’ in Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin N K and Lincoln Y S (eds), 2nd edn, SAGE, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp.923–948..
  • Smith, H and Dean, R T (eds) 2009, Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.
  • Wakefield, F 1994, ‘Problem Finding and Empathy in Art’ in Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Creativity, Runco M A (ed), Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, NJ, pp. 99–115.
  • Whaites, M 2014, Personal interview by Vahri McKenzie, January 25 2014, digital voice recording, Perth, Australia.
  • Whaites, M 2015, Personal interview by Vahri McKenzie, April 10 2015, digital voice recording, Perth, Australia.
  • Yin, R K 2014, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 5th edn, SAGE, Thousand Oaks, CA.